Defense chief says US troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq

Defense chief says US troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq
© Greg Nash

U.S. troops leaving Syria will be relocated to western Iraq, where they will continue to conduct operations to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State, Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperPentagon chief: US giving Vietnam surplus ship for coast guard Talks stall on defense costs with South Korea Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Stopgap spending bill includes military pay raise | Schumer presses Pentagon to protect impeachment witnesses | US ends civil-nuclear waiver in Iran MORE said Sunday. 

Esper told reporters traveling with him to the Middle East that details regarding the U.S. military's efforts in western Iraq would be worked out in the upcoming weeks, The Associated Press reported

The comments came after weeks of bipartisan scrutiny of President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE's abrupt decision to pull roughly 1,000 troops from northern Syria ahead of a planned Turkish offensive in the area. Trump has repeatedly argued that it is time to get out of "endless wars" and promised to bring U.S. troops home.

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But Esper said Sunday that many of the U.S. troops leaving Syria will be relocated to Iraq. 

"One is to help defend Iraq and two is to perform a counter-ISIS mission as we sort through the next steps," he said, adding that the troop withdrawal would take "weeks not days."

"Things could change between now and whenever we complete the withdrawal, but that’s the game plan right now," Esper said.

The Defense chief did not rule out the possibility of U.S. forces conducting counterterrorism missions from Iraq into Syria. He also reportedly said that he'd spoken with his Iraqi counterparts about the move, which will place more than 700 U.S. troops in western Iraq. More than 5,000 American troops are currently stationed in Iraq as part of an agreement between the two nations, the AP reported. 

The forces deployed in northern Syria had been assisting the Kurdish YPG, which leads the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Turkey considers the Kurdish-led forces, which have proved to be the U.S.'s most effective allies in its fight against ISIS, to be a terrorist insurgency. 

Many lawmakers and former Pentagon officials, including Trump's former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Amazon to challenge Pentagon's 'war cloud' decision in federal court Former Mattis staffer: Trump 'shooting himself in the foot' on foreign policy MORE, have voiced fears that a withdrawal from the region could to lead to a resurgence of ISIS. Reports surfaced last week that hundreds of ISIS supporters escaped from a Kurdish-established detention facility following a Turkish airstrike. 

Vice President Pence announced last Thursday that the United States and Turkey reached a deal to temporarily suspend Ankara's incursion. However, the AP noted that sporadic clashes have continued despite the five-day cease-fire. 

Esper acknowledged those reports but said that the cease-fire "generally seems to be holding."